Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated during Wednesday’s Q1 2018 earnings call that the company has managed to reduce the time it takes to produce a Model 3 battery pack by 94%, from 7 hours to under 17 minutes. According to Musk, addressing the over-generalization of the Model 3’s design, as well as the excessive automation in Gigafactory, proved beneficial to the improvement in the manufacturing rate of the car’s battery packs.
“This still remains to be fixed, but in any case, overgeneralizing the design. For example, the current battery pack has a port for front drive units, which we then put a steel blanking plate on. So essentially, we punched a hole in it and put a blanking plate at the hole. And (we had to) do that for all rear drive unit cars, which is kinda crazy.
“It would have added cost, it would have added a manufacturing step, it would have added a failure mode; and four ports was unnecessary… That’s changed. So, the result was we had a rapid improvement in battery pack production, from taking 7 hrs to make a pack 3 weeks ago to under 17 minutes now. We’re able to also achieve a sustained rate of 3,000 vehicles a week, so we’re actually slightly ahead in battery module and pack production than expected.”
With the optimizations to the line in place, Musk revealed that Tesla is now producing 3,000 battery packs per week at the Nevada Gigafactory, with peak hours of production hitting a rate of 5,000 per week.
“In the last 24 hours at the Gigafactory, we managed to keep a sustained rate of over 3,000 packs per week. We actually reached a peak hour, extrapolated outward would be a rate of over 5,000 cars per week… Every hour is as good as its peak. If you can achieve it even once in an hour, then with continued refinement of the system, and improved operational time of the machinery, you can achieve that sustained rate with more refinement.”
Musk reiterated his previous statement about the company automating too much of its production line. According to Musk, Tesla “went too far and automated some pretty silly things,” including an incredibly complex “fluff machine” that ended up making production complicated.
“One of the things we’ve found is that there are some things that are very well suited to manual operations, and there are some things are very well suited to automated operations. The two should not be confused. We did go too far in the automation front, and automated some pretty silly things.
“One example would be, we have these fiberglass mats on top of the battery pack. They’re basically fluff. We tried to automate the placement and bonding of fluff to the top of the battery pack, which was ridiculous. ‘Flufferbot,’ which was really an incredibly difficult machine to make work. Machines are not good at picking up pieces of fluff. Hands are way better at doing that.
“So we had this super-complicated machine, using a vision system to try and put a piece of fluff on a battery pack. The line kept breaking down because Flufferbot would frequently fail to pick up the fluff, or put it in a random location. So, that was one of the silliest things we’ve found.”
The revelations about the improvements in the pace of Model 3 battery pack production are in line with Elon Musk’s recent statements about relying too much on automation. Musk mentioned this in an interview with Gayle King of CBS This Morning, and later in a tweet, where he coyly stated that humans are “underrated.”
Nevertheless, Tesla pointed to strategic automation as key in its Q1 Update Letter. The company, for one, credits the quality improvements in the Model 3 line to the automation that is involved in manufacturing the vehicles. Tesla expects the Model 3 line to be optimized once more after a planned 10-day shutdown in production during the second quarter. With a hiring ramp underway, Tesla is aiming to adjust overtime hours and staffing levels to meet its production goals even further.
Tesla’s first-quarter earnings for 2018 saw the electric car maker posting $3.4 billion in revenue and beating earnings estimates with a loss of $568 million. Losses per share was listed at -$3.35 per share, lower than Wall Street estimates of -$3.58 per share.